USU was a dominating force on the football scene, and, when they were forming the WAC, it was a sore point. BYU and Utah went about eliminating USU. There was no question. —Ladell Andersen, in 1999
Quiz time: What school am I?
I wear blue and white and was once one of the best collegiate football teams in the Intermountain West. I boasted All-American players, future NFL stars, conference championships, bowl games, national rankings. Those were the days. Then, several rivals from our conference fled to a new, more powerful conference, and I was left out. I was forced to turn to independence — as in, no conference affiliation. I’ve never been the same since.
Who am I?
With all the conversation about BYU’s failure to be invited into the Pac-10 when Utah made the leap in 2011, and the resulting problems it has caused for the once-powerful Cougars, it has been forgotten that this is history repeating itself — this could even be considered karmic.
What happened to BYU in 2011, happened to Utah State in 1962.
If it seems unfair that BYU — which had the best football program in the Mountain West at the time — was left out of the Pac-10 when it expanded six years ago, it was equally unfair that Utah State was not included in the Western Athletic Conference when the league was formed 55 years ago. Utah and BYU were invited; USU was passed over, and at least one former school official blamed the Aggies’ in-state rivals.
"I have a hard time forgiving Utah and BYU for not getting USU in," Ladell Andersen told the Deseret News in 1999. Andersen, you might remember, was head basketball coach at BYU and USU and an assistant coach at Utah. He also was athletic director at USU.
"It disgusts me to talk about it,” he continued. “It's nothing against BYU and Utah. It's about the leadership. We're talking about a handful of people at BYU and Utah."
The irony and the parallels between BYU in 2011 and USU in 1962 are uncanny.
Decades ago, BYU, Utah and Utah State were a package deal. They were all in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference and then moved together to the Mountain States Conference, which became the Skyline Conference. In the late 1950s, BYU athletic director Eddie Kimball began discussions with officials from other schools about forming the Western Athletic Conference, which made its debut in 1962. The charter members were Arizona, Arizona State, BYU, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. USU applied for an invitation, but was rebuffed.
The Aggies were more than qualified. They had won the Skyline Conference championship the previous two years before the WAC formed. At the time, the Aggies had a winning record against BYU — 21-13-3 (a dominance that would continue through 1974, when USU owned a 30-17-3 advantage over the Cougars).
The Aggies could rarely beat Utah in those days, although, beginning in 1961, they would win 11 of the next 16 games in the rivalry. The Aggies had played in bowl games the previous two seasons, following two nine-win seasons (Utah had been to one bowl and BYU none), and they ranked 10th in the final 1961 national polls. BYU had none of those things. The Aggies boasted future NFL players in Merlin Olsen, Lionel Aldridge, Bill Munson and Roy Shivers.
USU also had a basketball team that rivaled Utah's and BYU's — a Sweet 16 appearance in 1962, third place in the 1960 NIT, as well as superstars such as Cornell Green, Wayne Estes, Nate Williams and Marv Roberts.
Yet, somehow, USU was ignored by the WAC. Four members of the Skyline Conference — BYU, Utah, New Mexico and Wyoming — were invited to join the new league, forcing the Aggies to turn to independence. They continued to play good football for several years, but they eventually went into decline in the ‘70s.
Desperate for conference affiliation after 17 years of independence, they latched on to the Pacific Coast Athletic Conference — a league comprised of second-tier California schools (Long Beach State, UC Irvine, Fresno State, Cal State Fullerton, UC Santa Barbara) — which in 1988 was renamed the Big West Conference. It had no natural rivalries, little fan appeal and little TV money. The league eventually dropped football, and USU turned to independence again in 2001 and 2002.
USU tried to gain admittance to the WAC seven times from 1962 to 1999 and was rejected every time. Even after the league’s eight top teams left the league in 1999, the WAC continued to ignore USU, taking Nevada and Louisiana Tech instead. Finally, in 2005, the Aggies were admitted to the WAC — seven years after most of the league’s best teams had bolted to the Mountain West, including Utah and BYU. After winning the WAC title in 2012, the Aggies joined the Mountain West Conference — three years after BYU and Utah had abandoned it.
The Aggies have never really recovered from their failure to get into the WAC. They have had 27 losing seasons in the last 36 years, and the rare coaches who succeed there tend to use the school as a stepping stone for a job elsewhere. When the Aggies were rejected again in 1999, Andersen could hold his tongue no more.
"They should have been in the WAC a long time ago," said Andersen at the time. "USU was a dominating force on the football scene, and, when they were forming the WAC, it was a sore point. BYU and Utah went about eliminating USU. There was no question. They held the cards to get USU in the league because you were not going to form the WAC without those two.
"Certainly, at that time, Utah State had as much draw and as much history and tradition as any of those schools. I thought there was a lot of jealousy. The Aggies had beaten up on those schools enough. In my opinion it was their way to derail Utah State's prominence in football, and it worked. They won't admit that, but I really believe that's the truth. They did not want Utah State in. I heard this from a lot of sources who were in the meetings and confided in me."
The late James “Bud” Jack, who was Utah’s athletic director when the WAC was formed, told the Deseret News in 1999, "I can't really remember why (USU) was excluded. My guess is that, with BYU and Utah, it would have meant three schools from one state. I know I was personally in favor of (USU's inclusion). It was logical. We were going to play them anyway. We might as well be in the same conference and play by the same rules."
Dave Schulthess, who was BYU's sports information director for 37 years, told the Deseret News in ‘99, "I know USU was quick to point fingers at Utah and BYU, and not without some reason, but there are other things to look at. Other schools had to figure in the mix. And I know BYU and Utah had to protect their interests, too. I can't understand it myself, except that they were all competitors, competing for the same recruits and so forth. But, logically, how can you leave a state rival out?
"The very purpose of a conference is to unite schools that have something in common, whether it's geography or rivalry or whatever. What didn't they have? This cries for an explanation. And then to be left out this last time (1999), that was a slap in the face. This is like a curse I can understand schools looking out for their own interests (in the beginning), but to have it go on and on."
Schulthess continued: "USU was just the odd man out. I think there was some feeling that they didn't want three schools from the same state. Well, Utah was in — they were based in Salt Lake City. And Eddie Kimball was involved in the formation of the league, so BYU was in. If he hadn't been, BYU could have been the odd man out, and then it's horrors. What would a private, religious school do?"
Little did he know that that question would be answered in 2011, when it was BYU’s turn to be the odd man out. The Pac-10 added Utah and Colorado, and BYU turned to independence, just as USU did. That decision undoubtedly played a role in BYU’s poor 4-9 record this season. History is repeating itself.